Senate debates

Wednesday, 2 September 2020


Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

10:09 am

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek to make a contribution to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. This bill seeks to make a number of amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984. Many of the amendments contained in the bill are technical ones that were recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its review of the 2016 federal election. These recommendations flowed from submissions by the independent regulator, the Australian Electoral Commission. However, the amendments which have garnered the most attention are the amendments to sections 302CA and 314B of the Commonwealth Electoral Act. I want to make Labor's position clear upfront: Labor supports the technical amendments and supports the intention of the amendments to sections 302CA and 314B to clarify the Commonwealth's power to make laws with respect to Commonwealth elections. Labor will therefore be supporting the bill provided some important amendments are made, which I will expand on shortly.

The bill's proposed amendments to section 302CA arise out of the High Court's decision in the case of Spence v Queensland [2019] HCA 15, where the court found section 302CA to be wholly invalid. Section 302CA provided that, despite any state or territory law, a donation could be made to a federally registered party if the donation was 'required to be, or may be,' used for federal purposes. This provision allowed gifts which were not permitted at a state level to be made to a party as long as the gift was used, or might be used, for federal purposes. The amendments to section 302CA seek to rectify errors in the drafting of the original clause and bring it within the Commonwealth's power. Under the amendment, it is not good enough that a donation might be used for a federal election. The donations must be expressly offered, sought, given, accepted and used for federal purposes. If they are not then the relevant state law will apply.

The bill also seeks to amend section 314B. The amendment should mean that donations which are above the state threshold for disclosure but below the federal threshold, which is currently $14,300, will not need to be disclosed to the state electoral commission if they are expressly given and used for federal purpose.

Labor's taken time to consider the implications of the bill and the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, including those in Labor's dissenting report. As many of the submissions to JSCEM noted, the Commonwealth laws on political donations lag behind those of the states. It's not Labor's intention in any way to weaken any of those provisions already in place in the states, but the Commonwealth parliament should be able to make laws with respect to Commonwealth elections, and those laws should not be overridden by the states. These amendments do not try to control the laws that state governments make in relation to state elections. They simply confirm the Commonwealth parliament has the legislative responsibility for making laws in relation to Commonwealth elections.

Labor is of the view that we should have a uniform federal system that treats federal parties and candidates equally no matter which state or territory they are based in. All federal parties and candidates should be playing by the same rules—those contained in the Commonwealth Electoral Act, not in eight different state and territory electoral acts. I think we can all agree that we do not want to go down the path of the United States, where the laws of the 50 states govern presidential elections. Imagine if an Australian state didn't allow postal voting in a federal election, for instance.

We must never forget how fortunate we are to have a uniform federal system for federal elections, and we should not be undermining that now. If we do not address the inconsistencies raised in the Spence case then it isn't beyond the realms of possibility that a state donation law that is actually worse than the Commonwealth law could be imposed upon us. A state government could, for example, try to restrict the role of unions or charities in elections—legitimate third parties that have a legitimate role to play in our democracy. Just because a current state law may be deemed to be better that the Commonwealth's, we cannot simply cherrypick that and apply it to Commonwealth elections. We wouldn't want to do that if the state law were worse, so we wouldn't want to do it just because it's allegedly better. What we should be aiming for is a better federal system, and we recognise the concerns raised by some submissions to JSCEM's inquiry. We're pleased that the government has listened to Labor's concerns and has drafted an amendment to require federal donations to be paid into dedicated federal campaign accounts. We will have more to say on this during the committee stage.

Because we don't want there to be any confusion as to which laws apply, during the committee stage Labor will also be moving an amendment to delay the commencement of the bill until after the Queensland election. That way, parties, candidates and the Queensland Electoral Commission will have certainty in the upcoming election. We believe a combination of those two amendments will ameliorate some of the concerns with this bill. Many of the submissions to the JSCEM inquiry called on the Morrison government to implement wholesale changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act to improve the transparency of the electoral system.

Labor has a proud history of political donations reform. It was Labor that secured the ban on foreign donations, protecting our political system from foreign interference. It was Labor's amendments that linked public funding to the campaign expenditure, preventing parties from profiting from the electoral system. It was Labor, under Bob Hawke, that was the first to introduce a donations disclosure regime in back in 1983. The Labor Party currently has two bills before the Senate which deliver on some of our longstanding commitments. One bill seeks to lower the disclosure threshold from the current $14,300, indexed to inflation, to a fixed $1,000. The other bill seeks to introduce a system of real-time disclosure, where donations above the threshold would need to be disclosed within seven days.

If the Morrison government had any desire at all to improve the integrity of our system then it would immediately support these bills. I will be moving a second reading amendment calling on them to do just that. The second reading amendment includes other reforms that will increase transparency, level the playing field and reduce parties' reliance on political fundraising and the corollary risk of corruption. We must catch up with our state counterparts and implement donations and expenditure caps. Currently, there's no limit to how much a person or entity can donate to a political party or candidate. In 2016-17, Malcolm Turnbull donated $1.75 million to the Liberal Party, the largest political donation that year. That was, of course, eclipsed by Clive Palmer's record-breaking donation to the United Australia Party leading up to the 2019 election, an eye-watering $83 million.

New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland all have caps on political donations, and the Commonwealth should be following suit. Donations caps should work hand in hand with expenditure caps. Expenditure caps would level the playing field for candidates and parties, and assure that election debate is not dominated by the party with the biggest bank balance. To support these measures and reduce parties' reliance on fundraising, the rate of public election funding should be increased, and parties and elected Independents should be provided with administrative funding to help cover the increased cost of compliance. Labor calls on the Senate to support these measures to improve the integrity of our electoral system.

As mentioned earlier, the bill makes a number of technical amendments designed to rectify drafting errors and improve the processes of the Electoral Commission. Labor supports these technical amendments. However, I would like to note that one amendment in particular that was raised in submissions to the JSCEM inquiry is the provision relating to questions that polling officials asked of a voter to ascertain their entitlement to vote. Currently the Electoral Act requires a polling officer to ask: what is your full name, where do you live and have you voted before in this election? Occasionally, these questions can cause confusion, and a polling official may need some scope to rephrase the questions. The amendments provide flexibility, but some submissions raised concern that the changes would allow a polling official to ask a voter to provide identification.

As Labor's dissenting report for the JSCEM inquiry pointed out, Labor does not support so-called voter ID laws. We believe that requiring people to provide identification may have the effect of discouraging some people from voting and, in turn, undermine our system of compulsory voting. However, we are assured that the amendment is necessary in circumstances where the voter has a hearing disability or there is a language barrier, and we will be seeking further assurances from the Electoral Commission that it will not result in polling officials asking for identification. I look forward to speaking more on the bill during committee stage. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate:

(a) is of the opinion that Australia's electoral system would be strengthened by:

  (i) lowering the disclosure threshold for political donations from the current $14,300 to $1,000,

  (ii) removing the indexation of the political donation disclosure threshold, and

  (iii) requiring recipients of political donations to disclose those donations within seven days;

(b) notes that the Opposition has introduced the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Transparency Measures – Lowering the Disclosure Threshold) Bill 2019 and the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Transparency Measures – Real Time Disclosure) Bill 2019, which, if enacted, would achieve these outcomes;

(c) calls on the Government to support these bills; and

(d) is also of the opinion that Australia's electoral system would be further strengthened by:

  (i) implementing caps on political donations and electoral expenditure,

  (ii) increasing the rate of public funding concurrently with the implementation of these caps, to reduce the reliance of participants in the political process on political fundraising, and

  (iii) introducing administrative funding for parties and elected independents to cover administrative and operating expenses".

10:19 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Here we have a government that said it was not urgent to deal with paid pandemic leave so that people could stay home when they're sick and not spread COVID-19. But it thinks this bill is urgent. This bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020, would allow massive donations from the big corporate mates of this government so they could keep giving it those dirty, big political donations. That's what this government thinks is urgent business for the federal parliament. They are shameless. They don't want to actually help people and stop the spread of COVID-19; they want to keep the spread of dirty political donations flowing. That's what was listed at last minute's notice last night for the federal parliament to debate today.

The High Court had something to say about this. The government first tried to get around the stronger state restrictions and the stronger state requirements on disclosure of political donations with the EFDR bill a couple of years ago. The High Court said, 'No, you can't. It was terrible drafting and you simply can't get around those stricter state laws.' So here is this government again: it has come back with a redraft, because it is desperate to keep those millions of dollars of big corporate donations flowing into its coffers so it can shore up its own re-election and keep delivering for those same donor mates. What an absolute crock!

We've got some stronger donations laws around the country at the state level. They're not perfect—some of them, in fact, are still quite weak—but some of the states have moved to stop the flow of that big, dirty money to try to make sure that democracy isn't for sale and that those big corporate donations don't simply deliver representatives who can facilitate an agenda that boosts private profits. New South Wales, of course, is the most well-known example. It's got much stronger donations disclosure rules, donations caps and donations bans. It's not perfect, but it's a damn sight better than anywhere else in the country. Queensland has started to follow suit, thanks to pressure from the Greens in the lead-up to the previous state election. The Queensland government has banned donations from property developers. This federal government is not happy about that. So it has brought in this bill today, which is rushed through, in an attempt to allow the dirty money to keep flowing.

The statistics are appalling. This government and, frankly, the opposition too are for sale to big donors. There have been $100 million in corporate donations to both of those political parties since to 2012. Is it any wonder that we see big tax cuts for corporations on the agenda or that we see $270 billion given out for weapons manufacturers? Yet they won't even provide paid pandemic leave for ordinary workers and they won't even let casuals and temporary visa workers get access to JobKeeper. The priorities of the government are clear: they are here to deliver for their big corporate donors, so they doesn't want the restrictions that the states have started to impose on the flow of that money. This is an attempt to get around the High Court and allow that money to keep flowing into their back pockets.

We had hopes that Labor might stand with us and oppose this—and I can see that they've got some second reading amendments, which we'll be supporting—but it remains to be seen whether they will support our committee stage amendments that would actually stop the flow of dirty money and would restore democracy, putting it back into the hands of the people, not vested interests and donors. We've got a particular amendment which would lower the disclosure threshold for donations nationally, because at the moment there is a much higher threshold. Nobody knows who's donating to whom if they donate less than the $13,800 threshold. Getting rid of the dirty money is the most important thing, but at least knowing about the dirty money is the second most important thing. We're not even sure whether the Labor Party will stand with us to fix that loophole or whether they just want to have a second reading debate which says that but won't follow through and will vote for the actual amendment when it gets to the committee stage. We'll be moving other amendments that actually slam that back door shut and that say that you can't just donate that money to state political parties and allow other money to be freed up to be used—that you can't just use that back door to keep the dirty money flowing. We want to eliminate that possibility.

We also want to clean up the system so that you can't donate if you are a property developer or if you are in alcohol, tobacco, big mining or coal seam gas—a list of other industries that have for too long been influencing this parliament in a way that is not good for the community or the planet. The reason why we have no decent climate policy and why emissions have been increasing—particularly export gas emissions, even in this time of reduced emissions that is a COVID blip—is that this government takes millions of dollars from big oil, big gas, and big coal. This is exactly why we should be banning donations from that sector, and from other big sectors that seek to boost their own private profits at the expense of the public interest.

I think that we've got some crossbench support for those amendments. But this is a real test for Labor and the government: do they want to stand with the community and with the public interest? Or do they want to stand with their vested interests and their donors and let that dirty money keep dictating their policy agenda? We will find out soon enough. But, sadly, I don't have a lot of hope that Labor and the government will stand with us to ban that dirty money from those vested interests. These are the same vested interests that then offer well-paid jobs, I might add, to MPs once they leave parliament. It's a very cosy relationship: the money flows in, it gets used in the political campaign to keep seats, the policies get written that suit that corporate agenda, and the MP gets a lovely job once they exit parliament. It's a very cosy arrangement, where everyone wins—except the public. We've got a chance to clean that up today, and it will be a real test for the big parties if they want to vote to support that.

Dirty money should not be running this place, irrespective of where it's coming from. And so, another really important measure that we've long proposed and will again be proposing today is to cap political donations from anybody at no more than $1,000 a year. That includes corporations, it includes individuals, it includes organisations and it includes unions. Across the board, big money should not be buying outcomes. Outcomes should be determined by what's in the public interest and what's best for the nation. Again, it will be a big test for the other political parties in this chamber: do they want to do their job to represent their constituents and further the interests of the nation in a way that benefits everyone and benefits and protects nature? Or do they want to just be here for power's sake, keep taking the money and keep delivering for their big corporate vested-interest donors? We will find out.

As I mentioned earlier, we want to at least know the extent of the dirty money that is slushing around in this system. The federal government has long had much, much weaker disclosure rules than many other states have and the disclosure threshold is much higher. Many of the states have a disclosure threshold of $1,000, and often require disclosure within a much shorter time frame, for example, seven days. We actually think there should be real-time disclosure. But the federal rules are so much weaker. You don't have to tell anybody about a donation either that you've given or that you as a political party have received, except once a year. So it can be 12 months after the fact that you just got a whopping great donation that you have to disclose that to the public. That's not accountability. That's not transparency. That means that people could vote in an election not knowing who has funded a political party's campaign and—conveniently—only be told about it, many months after the fact, on 1 February each year. That time frame for disclosure and the threshold for disclosure are both far too weak. It allows a ton of dirty, dark money to be slushing around, funding political parties and exerting influence, without the public even knowing. The public don't know who is donating, they don't know how much and they don't know in a timely manner. So we've got an amendment to fix that as well, and to lower that disclosure threshold to $1,000, which matches the threshold of many of the other states. People have a right to know who is trying to buy influence from a democracy that is meant to represent people but which has been hijacked by big donors and vested interests. People have a right to know.

I know this is the Labor Party's policy, and we welcome that, but are they going to vote for us? I haven't got a reply yet. They've got their own second reading amendment to the same effect which we all know sadly is a great statement of principle that doesn't actually change the law; it doesn't have any tangible impact. The tangible impact that could occur is if they vote for it at the third reading stage, the committee stage, where I will move that amendment. And I really hope they do, because what's the point of having a policy if you don't vote for it? It's kind of meaningless. We've got a chance to lower the disclosure threshold for national donations—a huge improvement—but are they going to vote for it? We will find out. I believe we've got crossbench support for that. So it's coming down to Labor. It'll be very interesting to see whether they want to actually reveal who's funding their own campaigns, because there is an awful lot of corporate money that flows into their campaigns as well.

We've seen the Labor Party come to an agreement with the government—it happens quite a lot, doesn't it, particularly where big dirty donations are in question—that they're okay with this back door that continues to let donors get around stricter state donations laws. They're okay with this back door as long as they can get past the Queensland state election first. Well, that's a pretty cynical approach. Either you have a principled stance where you think that dirty donations shouldn't keep on flowing and where stronger state restrictions should be respected, or you don't. It shouldn't be contingent on your own electoral prospects in a state election. I've found that approach particularly affronting from the opposition, and I would urge them to support the Greens' strong amendments once we get to committee stage to really restrict the influence of big donations on our polity.

This is a long and sordid tale. We have been trying to remove the influence of big money from politics as long as I've been in parliament—and that's going back to the 2010 election now—and still we have $100 million in corporate donations that have flowed into the big parties' re-election funds. Donations reform is so long overdue it is beyond a joke. We've got a chance today to start to fix it, but it looks to me like the two big parties have, once again, reached an agreement that suits their political parties' bottom line and it very much suits the agenda of their corporate and other large donors. Well, democracy should not be for sale.

Political donations reform is absolutely critical. In fact, it's the one issue, as I have campaigned for many, many years, that the community consistently raises. No matter who they vote for, they all think it stinks that big donors can make big donations to big political parties and get fantastic policy outcomes that suit their private profits, while throwing the community and nature on the scrap heap. Everybody thinks that's corrupt. What we have here is legalised corruption. It's legalised for big donations to buy outcomes that suit private profits and deliver a well-paid job once that politician leaves parliament. It is legalised corruption.

We have a chance to clean this up today, to put democracy back in the hands of the community and start taking decisions that actually help people—what an absolute shock that we maybe give paid pandemic leave to workers so that they don't go to work sick and potentially spread COVID-19 because they can't afford to not get paid. That's the sort of stuff that this parliament should be working on, and it took the Greens this morning to bring that forward. Of course, the government didn't want to support it. I'm grateful that on this occasion we did have the support of the opposition. But, no, the government thinks it's not urgent. What's urgent here is creating a back door so that big donors can keep making donations to political parties and shoring up outcomes. It is absolutely disgusting. The priorities of this government have once again been made completely obvious, and it's all about corporate favours for big donors.

This is really heartbreaking stuff, because we've got a chance to actually fix this today. I know we won't get support from the government, but it remains to be seen whether we will get support from the opposition. I'm grateful for the support that we have from the crossbench, and I thank those members of the crossbench who have said they will support our amendments.

Let's clean up democracy. Let's make it work for the people, for the public interest like it's meant to, like we've all been elected to do. We're not here to deliver for corporate mates—memo to the government!—we're actually here to protect the public interest, and it's about time the government started doing so. I look forward to moving the amendments once we get to—

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Waters. Senator McGrath.

10:34 am

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I wish to contribute to this second reading debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. It is a key function of committees to ensure that any proposed legislation is carefully examined and that the public has an opportunity to contribute to those parliamentary deliberations. It is also crucial that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, in examining bills, seeks to ensure that any proposed legislation lessens regulatory burdens and red tape which can significantly impact not only on smaller parties and Independents but also on the wider voting public.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020 contains a number of amendments designed to improve clarity, enhance electoral processes and strengthen electoral integrity in the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act. The bill makes necessary amendments to sections 302CA and 314B of the Commonwealth Electoral Act and clarifies the relationship between the electoral laws of the Commonwealth, the states and the territories. To alleviate unnecessary administrative burdens, the bill also includes a number of practical amendments. These include changing the telephone voting method available to Antarctic electors to provide secret voting; changing staffing requirements for the Australian Electoral Commission to allow greater flexibility; allowing AEC staff to make administrative marks on ballot papers; allowing pens, as well as pencils, to be used to mark votes on ballot papers; making minor practical changes to the Senate ballot paper to mitigate excessive ballot width; and streamlining the vote-issuing process. These changes, amongst others, contribute to the Australian Electoral Commission's ability to deliver transparent, consistent and efficient elections, while removing unnecessarily prescriptive practices. The committee has therefore recommended that the bill be passed.

The committee has also recommended that the government amend the bill to clarify that the recipients of donations will be provided exclusive coverage under federal donation laws only when they place donations in a federal electoral account that can be drawn down only for federal electoral purposes. This will ensure that the banking and accounting treatment of donations aligns with the legal treatment, supporting a separation of state campaign activity from federal campaign activity. This amendment squarely addresses the main issues raised in submissions.

I'd like to thank everyone who made a submission to our inquiry into this bill, and I'd particularly like to thank my deputy chair and the other members of the committee, along with the secretariat, for their work. Thank you.

10:38 am

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

There's not much in politics that is predictable, but what you can always bet your last dollar on is that when there's a chance to fix our rotten donation laws the Labor Party will flub it. I've got to say, I always make the same mistake—I'm owning up to it. Every time I hear the Labor Party talk about how they want to 'strengthen', 'fix' or 'tighten up' our donation laws or say, 'Let's bring on a national ICAC in Australia,' I make the mistake of letting myself get sucked into having a bit of hope that they'll stick to their word. I make the mistake of getting my hopes up every time, and every time I get burned, and so do the Australian people. Every time I hope they'll get it right they just send it further backwards, and I'm always so disappointed. Maybe I'm just a slow learner, but I reckon there are a lot of Labor voters who will feel pretty burned about this as well.

Do you, ALP backbenchers over there, even know what your own party are doing? Do you have any idea what they're making you vote for? You tell your voters that you want there to be greater transparency in parliament. Once again, do you know what you're talking about? You say you'll fight corruption and combat the influence of big corporate donors, and then, when the time comes for you to stand up for what you believe in, you blink, you roll over, you scurry off into a corner like cockroaches. It's no wonder no-one listens to you anymore when it comes to transparency and what's best for the country over political donations. We might as well not have an opposition party in this parliament, because you give the government what they want every time. You care more about protecting your donors than you do about your own voters. I hope to God that they wake up to you sooner rather than later.

Everyone who's giving big piles of cash to major parties wants things to stay the way they are. Everyone who is pinning their hopes on major parties that things will get better wants things to change. Every single time the donors win the day. We are stuck in this chamber of acting only with the permission of the donor classes. Nothing about our donation laws can change if it hurts the ones who are donating their way into the hearts and minds of the major parties. And because the ones who win out of our crumby donation laws are the donors, not the voters, voters don't win out of this. If the voters were going to win, you'd actually have to go out there and earn your seats instead of paying for them. The voters just keep getting told to suck it up and shut it down.

Why is it up to the crossbench to stick up for something that's so popular that 80 per cent of voters want it? Eighty per cent of voters out there want electoral change in the right way. You guys are always accused of being too focused on doing what's popular instead of doing what's right. I'm here to defend you against that accusation, because we've got evidence that it's wrong and it's right in front of us today. Here we have a chance to do something that 80 per cent of voters support and you're saying: 'No. Too bad. I have to keep my political seat and that's more important than doing what's doing right by the voters and right by the country, showing that there is no influence in both these chambers.' It continues to be shown out there that, if you pay enough money, you get plenty of influence up here in the big, white house in Canberra. There's no doubt about that. There's no argument there.

So full credit to Australians who standing up to the will of the people! Congratulations on fighting against the will of the people who voted you in here in the first place to begin with! There is something admirable about having the strength to fight against your voters and fight for your donors! But I'm sorry to inform you that I don't have your spine! Unlike you, I don't take the big donations from the big spenders. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, they don't offer it, to be honest. Secondly, even if they did offer it, I'd turn them down. I care about my dignity too much to sell myself out and sell out Tasmanians for that. I am sure you and your voters would say it's always worth selling your souls to get you into office. If you can sleep of a night-time then good for you. You're bigger than I am! Maybe you genuinely believe that. After all, you can't do anything if you don't have government. That's what they say at least.

But here again we have evidence today to prove that it's not true, because from the benches of the opposition Labor are about to achieve something really huge. Let nobody say you have no power to make change from opposition, because Labor are about to make a huge change and they don't even need to win government to do it. What's about to happen in front of our very eyes is a pea-and-thimble trick that would make a street magician blush. Labor are about to vote for legislation they say will strengthen our donation laws. They are about to move some amendments that they say will close all the loopholes and maintain all the integrity of our donation system. As soon as they do, the cracks in our federal donation laws will blow open even further. They will say they are strengthening them and they'll get weaker. They'll say they're making things more transparent and they'll get less transparent—not that there's much transparency left at all. They don't even need to be in government to do it. I bet the Liberals and Nationals are sitting back right now and thinking, 'You beauty.' They're laughing their butts off at you people. You just fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

If the Labor Party want to move amendments to the Liberal Party's dodgy donations bill that will make it even dodgier nobody in the Liberals is going to stand in the way. They have walked all over the top of you. It's shameful. Every time the Liberal and Labor Party get together to work on our donations laws, you can guarantee they're covering each other's butts and we're going backwards, not forwards. It's scary stuff. Labor are about to argue that federal donation laws should be more like state laws. Well, jeez, I hope you're not following the state laws of Tasmania, because when it comes to donations laws there are none! Isn't that right, Senator McKim?

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Absolutely right, Senator Lambie—none at all.

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

None at all. They're saying: 'Fantastic. Great move. Well done.' God, what a shameful day. They're going to say we should lower the disclosure threshold and speed up disclosure times, but they're just not going to move any amendments to do either of those things. I know you want to move your amendments, but you know you don't have the votes. All you're doing is trying to make yourselves look good. We are on top of it. People aren't fooled anymore by your amendments that say, 'This is what we want,' when you know very well you don't have the numbers. That, in itself, is even more shameful—that you are trying to pull the wool over Australians' eyes. I'm going to call you out for it.

Instead, we're going to pass a bill that insulates donations from any state laws that are tougher and stronger than the federal laws—laws which are, according to every expert who looks at them, the weakest of any jurisdiction in the country. Imagine arguing that we need stronger donation laws and, five minutes later, voting to weaken our donation laws. You have no shame, and I don't even need to argue that point because I imagine there are millions of Australians out there saying: 'They actually have no shame. We've known that for a long time.' You know, because I've told you how this is going to work, that I looked at your amendments for 10 minutes and found a way to get around them—10 minutes! This bill has been through a committee. We're supposed to be with it up here; we're supposed to be leaders. I've looked at the bill for 10 minutes and already I'm finding holes in it. So I ask: was that deliberate? Are we so stupid and incompetent here that we've got holes in the bill? I sincerely believe it's deliberate because I don't believe you're that stupid. I would hope not, because otherwise we've got much bigger problems than I first thought.

Let's go through how this works. Before every election, parties take out massive loans from the banks. They use the money from the loan to pay for their election campaign. Then, after the election, the AEC gives them back all the money they spent, courtesy of the public. You people out there in Australia pay them back the cash. The parties take the money they got from the AEC and give it right back to the bank to pay back their loan. The interest on that loan gets paid by the donors, and none of this system gets touched by this bill—not one bit of it. There is no transparency. It always amuses me how you guys find a way around anything. It's a pity you couldn't put all that energy and effort into actually making something solid, instead of finding wriggle room or ways to go behind so that, you hope, nobody picks up exactly what's going on.

You can take money from any source to be used for federal purposes. Paying back a loan counts as a federal purpose about as much as anything else does, because it doesn't count as anything. There is no transparency going on here. If you want it to be used for state purposes only, that's fine too. You aren't required to take out a loan for federal purposes only or a state purpose only, so you aren't required to repay a loan the same way either. This matters because loans are not counted as donations. Oh, dear. It's a pity we couldn't go and borrow $30 million, isn't it, Senator McKim? We'd get away with this as well. They're not donations; they are called 'other receipts'. If you're not sure what that means, it's because it doesn't mean anything, apart from there being no transparency of who's buying them up this time around. It's designed to mean absolutely nothing. It's like calling a bill 'miscellaneous measures', which is what this one is called. If you want nobody to pay attention to it, call it something boring and chuck it in first thing in the morning so nobody catches on until it's too late.

My amendments would remove the unconstitutional sections 302CA and 314B from the Commonwealth Electoral Act, rather than rewording them. This would mean that state and federal donation regimes would operate together as one scheme—that would be common sense—so state branches of political parties would have to disclose their donations according to the rules in their jurisdiction. In the absence of strong donation laws at the Commonwealth level, this is the only way to ensure that state branches don't use technicalities and loopholes to hide their donations from state disclosure regimes. This is what was recommended by multiple integrity experts in submissions to the inquiry on the bill, including the Human Rights Law Centre, and the Centre For Public Integrity. I do get that word: integrity. So you would think this would be an integral part of bill. If the bill passes with the new section 302CA and section 314B in it, we will be, effectively, knocking the legs out from under the state disclosure regimes. It would be a real shame if that happened, since the states are the only jurisdictions that are doing anything about donation reform at this stage. They're trying to go forward, and we're going backwards—except for the state of Tasmania, which is doing nothing.

If you'd like to support my amendments, that would be great. If you can't, I understand. I'm not getting my hopes up on this one. Once bitten, twice shy—and I've been bitten about 10,000 times by the Labor Party, saying it cares about transparency, only to vote the opposite way. Sooner or later I've got to stop getting my hopes up. I do have faith, I have to be honest, because if you choose between breaking the hearts of voters or your donors, you'll have made up your mind faster than I can finish this sentence, because you'll always put your donors before the voters. And the sooner those millions of Australians get through their thick head what these donations do—there is little transparency on them, there's no time disclosure and 14 months to reveal where your money comes from. Let's be honest, if you've got nothing to hide, what's wrong with seven days?

Then I get some rubbish from Minister Cormann, saying, small business, they give 10,000 bucks and still have the union thugs outside their door. If that's not the biggest load of rubbish I have heard in this chamber since I've been here, then blow me over. I said, 'Where did you get that from?' I haven't read that in any of their submissions—nothing. I think it was just something he made up after his Weetbix yesterday morning; he must have had an extra couple. I mean, come on. This is why the Australian public has very little trust in us, and you people up here are not helping.

You are going in the opposite direction of transparency and making political disclosure reforms. That's what you're doing, and you should be ashamed. You've got the Greens bill. You've got my bill going on. You've got the Centre Alliance bill. But no, the government doesn't want to talk about that. It doesn't want to bring that to the table. Do you know why? Because it would clean it up. You don't care about trust from the community, because you buy your seats with the million dollars worth of donations. But we do, because we have to go and earn it. You let me know when you're standing at traffic lights with campaign signs and spending 50,000 bucks of your own money to earn a seat, and then I might take you seriously. I know I can stand here and truly say that I did not buy my seat; I earned it—and by God did I earn it.

10:52 am

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

There's an old saying in politics: if you run a coin down the side of anything that's going on, the first thing you'll expose is self-interest. The Australian people are about to get a classic demonstration of that old adage, because self-interest is right at the heart of this legislation, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. Let's name up what this legislation does. It will legalise money laundering by political parties.

Let's be frank. Political donations corrupt our democracy. They encourage the corruption of individuals, the corruption of members of parliament and senators and the corruption of political parties. This is about the government making it legal to funnel money that would otherwise be illegal under state laws through their federal branches. I want people to understand what is going on. I predict that this legalisation of money laundering, the encouragement of political corruption, is going to slide through with the support of the Labor Party. They're going to make a big hoo-ha now and try to make it look as if they've got some issues here, but I reckon they're going to let it slide through. And it will be very interesting to see how they vote on some of the amendments that the Senate will shortly consider.

I want to remind people that my home state of Tasmania has no state based political donations disclosure laws—none whatsoever. And, believe me, in the last state election in 2018, we lived through the impacts of that lack of state based political donations disclosure laws. The state of Tasmania and the people of Tasmania have never seen anything like what happened in the 2018 state election. It should be a lesson to the Labor Party, because it actually cost them a go at forming government in Tasmania. For once in the Tasmanian Labor Party's recent history, they actually took a half-decent policy on poker machines to the election. It wasn't as strong as the policy the Greens took, but at least it actually had a go at constraining the monopoly power of Federal Group hotels, an obscenely rich, privately owned company from New South Wales that had and still has a monopoly on poker machines in Tasmania. It is a company owned by Greg Farrell, who's made himself obscenely rich by sucking the food off the tables and the money out of the wallets of so many Tasmanian families who are doing it so tough.

That campaign cost Labor a go at forming government. How did it happen? It happened because people like Mr Farrell and people like the mainland pokies barons stuffed millions of dollars into the pockets of the Tasmanian Liberals and into the pockets of the Tasmanian Hospitality Association, run by Mr Steve Old, who prostituted himself for the pokies barons during that election. You couldn't move in Tasmania without seeing the signs on the sides of the pubs that themselves had been making obscene profits from the pokies monopoly for so long. You couldn't move down there. We've never seen anything like it. I've been in politics for a long time; I've never seen anything like it, and the Greens live in this space. We face these campaigns against us every single time in Tasmania—they get bigger every time—and I've still never seen anything like what we saw in 2018. The pokies barons bought government for the Liberal Party in Tasmania, and they are still in government today as a result of that corruption, that base corruption of our democracy in Tasmania, made possible because we don't have any state based donations disclosure laws in my home state. What an utter disgrace that is.

We will never know how much the pokies barons threw at that campaign. We will never know, and we should know, because it is a fundamental right of voters when they go to the ballot box to know who has donated how much to which political party and candidate. Elections should be a contest of ideas; they shouldn't be a competition to see who's got the deepest pockets. But, unfortunately, that is where we are in our completely cooked democracy in this country. Elections have become about who has the deepest pockets, and our democracy has been fundamentally corrupted by political donations.

When you add the effect of political donations on our democracy to the revolving doors that exist between the boardrooms of the big corporations—the greedy profit-making machines that couldn't care less about the impact of their actions on the environment or on our communities—and this place here, where we see, time after time, major party politicians accepting political donations, coming into this place, running corporate agendas, delivering for their political donors and then sliding out the other side of the revolving door and walking straight into a cushy consultancy or a cushy directorship in the boardrooms of those very corporations, it makes me sick. It makes me sick to witness it. And both major parties do it time after time after time. Whether it be big banking, big gaming or big fossil fuels, we see it again and again and again. Who loses? The Australian people, our environment and our democracy lose. Who wins? The big, greedy corporations win again and again.

If you want a prime example of the revolving door, I refer you to the scandal that was the Australian government's bugging of the Timor-Leste government during negotiations around a treaty to allocate fossil fuel resources from the Timor Sea. Australia illegally bugged the Timor-Leste government during the negotiations for that treaty. This is the matter that Mr Collaery is currently undergoing a secret trial in relation to. And what happened? Shortly after that scandal, Mr Downer, a man at the very heart of what happened, walked out of politics and into a cushy consultancy advising Woodside Petroleum, the big corporate beneficiary of that unlawful action. I could go on about that revolving door, but suffice to say it makes me absolutely sick.

This legislation gives us the chance, as Senator Waters said, to actually start fixing up this corruption of our democracy, to start making sure that laws actually do their best to restrain this corruption, to make sure that laws actually do their best to turn elections from being a competition to see who's got the deepest pockets or the thickest wallets into a contest of ideas. Colleagues, surely we can all agree that elections should be a contest of ideas conducted on a level playing field? At the moment, the playing field is tilted and it's tilted in favour of the major parties and the people that they truly represent in this place—particularly the LNP, who, let's face it, are the political arm of corporate Australia.

In my home state of Tasmania you don't have to worry about using a brown paper bag. That's how bad it is down there.

Senator Patrick interjecting

'It's an Aldi bag!' says Senator Patrick. He makes a fair point. But, whether it's a brown paper or an Aldi bag, the point remains. You don't even need to wrap the cash up down in Tasmania to try to hide it. There's nothing to hide it from, because we don't have state based political donations laws in Tasmania.

There's a lot that Senator Lambie says and does that I don't agree with, and I think that's pretty clearly on the record, but what she said in this debate I 100 per cent concur with, and so do the Australian Greens, because Senator Lambie, like the Australian Greens, has been a long-time campaigner for reform on political donations. We've been at it for decades. She's been at it for a shorter period of time, but that's because she's been in parliament for a shorter period of time. We've been campaigning for this for a long time. I want to thank other members of the crossbench that do demonstrate integrity, like Senator Patrick.

If the LNP need help with integrity, let me spell it for them: i-n-t-e-g-r-i-t-y. Can you say it? Do you know what it means? I don't think you do. What you're doing this this place here today demonstrates that, whether or not you can spell it, you actually don't know what it means. You're bringing this bill in to facilitate money laundering. You're bringing this bill in to facilitate corruption—the corruption of our democracy, the corruption of politics and the corruption of Australia. If you can't have confidence in your democracy and in your political systems, how can you have confidence in anything that goes on in this place?

I look forward to the debate on this bill. As Senator Lambie says, we've got concerns about the position Labor are going to take, particularly in regard to some of our amendments, and we will see whether Labor let this one slide through. I urge senators: please, we need to tidy up our democracy. We need to clean it up, because it's broken, it's cooked and it's not delivering for the Australian people. Who it is delivering for are the big corporations.

11:06 am

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this bill. I note that the bill has a very innocuous title—Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. Indeed, that's what this is; it's just miscellaneous measures. It doesn't actually go to the heart of what needs to happen in respect of electoral reform. Australians need to know that, if you donate anything less than $14,300, the disclosure requirements are almost non-existent. That's a real issue that needs to dealt with that is not being dealt with by this bill.

People also need to understand what's happened. This bill wasn't actually listed until late last night. The way things work, just to let you know, is that, prior to parliament sitting, the government provides parties with a list of legislation that they expect to be brought up in the upcoming sitting period. That allows people like crossbenchers and Labor to examine legislation, and then they know which legislation to focus on. This bill wasn't on that list.

What's happened over the last couple of weeks is that Labor have concluded their discussions with the government and reached a position. Now that they've done that, they have to urgently deal with this. Senator Lambie was absolutely correct this morning when she pointed out during the motion to suspend standing orders that instead of looking at legislation that would be designed to help people who have to make a choice between going to work—understanding they potentially have COVID or certainly understanding they've got a cold—or staying at home and not being able to feed their family is an awful, awful choice. She talked about a bill that we could have debated today. It would have helped Australians. Instead we've put to the top of the priority list a miscellaneous measures bill that is so miscellaneous it actually doesn't go to the heart of the thing that concerns most Australians, and that's political donations and the transparency around those political donations.

We saw JobKeeper legislation passing through the Senate yesterday. During the debate on that, we looked at how taxpayers' money is going into the JobKeeper program, and everyone in this chamber supports that. But then, following the money and seeing what happens afterwards, we saw Accent Group receiving $13 million of JobKeeper and its CEO getting a $1.2 million bonus from that. We saw IPD Education receiving $1.4 million in JobKeeper and its CEO getting a $600,000 bonus. We saw companies like Nick Scali receiving $44 million from the Australian and New Zealand governments to help them through the pandemic and then paying $2 million in dividends to their investors.

What we didn't talk about was what else that money might be used for. So what else would that money be used for? It's a gift effectively from the taxpayer getting funnelled through a system, and I have no doubt in my mind that some of it will end up in the hands of the LNP and indeed Labor through donations. This bill doesn't seek to look at that. Australians need to be aware of what's happening with their money. So often the money that is getting passed to the large parties by way of donation is not even the company's money; it's money that's been taken from the taxpayer.

Over the last week we also talked about grandfathered large propriety companies—the 1,119 companies that are not required to lodge financial returns to ASIC. So we don't even know if they're paying higher dividends. We don't know if they're paying bonuses to their executives as a result of perhaps receiving JobKeeper. We don't know what JobKeeper is doing to position those companies so that they can donate to political parties. On numerous occasions in this chamber we've tried to stop that loophole, and the government has resisted—and I thank the Labor Party and all of the crossbench for their support in trying to stop this. However, the government has on multiple occasions voted against that and failed. It's gone to the House, come back and ping-pong has occurred, but, in doing so, they've provided no policy basis for that provision to stand to give elitist companies the ability to not lodge those ASIC returns. I am absolutely sure that some of the profits of those companies will flow into the hands of the major parties.

I mentioned this last week: Michael West, who examines these things, is looking at every one of those 1,119 companies. He's using the ability that journalists have to access corporate reports and to do so free of charge—and I encourage all journalists to utilise that facility that was negotiated by Nick Xenophon and me with the government in the last parliament. Michael West is going to pull all of this apart, and we're soon going to learn who those 1,119 companies are and who the beneficiaries of those companies are. We can start looking at tracking donations back to the Liberal Party, and then we might find the policy reason for them resisting closing down that loophole.

This bill doesn't get to the heart of some of the matters that really do concern voters. Let me tell you how this works. We've got Senator Ruston and Senator Cormann, sitting on the other side of the chamber. The way this works to avoid disclosure—and this needs to be addressed, and one of the Greens' amendments seeks to do this—is a lot of companies are not allowed to make political donations. Their corporate governance prevents them from making political donations. So what do they do? They turn up to a Liberal Party function and will pay $2,500 to $5,000 per ticket just to have dinner. Now, if that is not understood to be outright corruption, bypassing their own governance to pass money to political parties—they don't have to declare it as a donation; they're simply paying to go to dinner. Everyone needs to understand: that's how the Liberal Party raise a lot of money. It is completely opaque in respect of who is contributing. I can see on the other side of the chamber that no-one is looking at me; they're all embarrassed by what I'm telling you. This is how they generate money. And it's unacceptable—they should be declaring that. They should be declaring that they had a dinner and they charged $10,000 a seat, and they raised half a million dollars for the purposes of later getting themselves re-elected. But they're not. The bill that's before the parliament today doesn't address that.

We need donations to be disclosed in real time and to have a much lower threshold than the current threshold of $14,300. I don't mind people who donate to a political party because they like what the party is doing. I like the idea that grassroots people can contribute, and they can look and say: 'I like that party. I'm going to support them. I'm going to send my 20 bucks to the party and I'm going to help them. I'm appreciative of them and I'm going to encourage them.' I think that's okay. But there's a difference between saying, 'I like what you do and therefore I'm going to contribute', and saying, 'Give me lots of money, and you've bought me.' And that is, at the very least, the apprehended position of most Australians. They see that as political parties being bought by big corporate donors. So these dinners have to stop. But they won't stop, because neither of the parties will let that happen. In fact, even COVID couldn't stop the dinners. We've had dinners that are being paid for by big corporates to come and sit down and have dinner with their friendly LNP MP, paying a motza for it—and doing it during COVID, whilst everyone is being told to be responsible, to self-isolate and to avoid gatherings. All of that good medical advice gets ignored when it's about funding political parties. This bill does nothing to address that.

The bill title is accurate: it is a 'miscellaneous measures' bill. It hardly does anything. It doesn't go to the big issue that most Australians are concerned with—that is, making sure that democracy functions on behalf of the people, not on behalf of those with the biggest chequebooks. We have to get solid reforms occurring, not these miscellaneous measures.

11:18 am

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all those in the chamber who've contributed to the debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. I also take this opportunity to thank the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their thorough review of the bill and their even-handed examination of the issues raised in submissions. The committee found that the reforms in the bill will deliver important enhancements to our electoral system.

I also thank the committee for their recommendation for minor amendments to clarify key parts of the bill related to the interaction of electoral laws of different jurisdictions, consistent with the government's intent with this reform legislation. The government will move amendments that reflect that recommendation and we'll say more on those details during the in committee stages of the debate. I also foreshadow that the government is also willing to support an opposition amendment to the commencement date, as was proposed separately by the opposition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 is one of the oldest pieces of legislation in Australia, and the reforms in this bill are important to help modernise parts of the electoral system and to assist the AEC to deliver effective and timely electoral events.

Many of the amendments in this bill were included in an earlier technical amendment bill in the last parliament. While those reforms were recognised at the time as necessary, they were carried across the current parliament so that the AEC could focus on the delivery of the most urgent machinery changes ahead of the 2019 federal election.

This bill contains numerous improvements. The most important among those are: it extends the confidential voting service to Australian voters working in Antarctica; it removes the requirement to designate some divisional offices as pre-poll centres where they are unfit for purpose, including lacking disability access; it helps contain the width of the Senate ballot by allowing candidate names to be printed underneath preference boxes instead of only alongside boxes; it clarifies the interaction between federal, state and territory funding and disclosure regimes; and it allows flexibility in wording of questions to help find a voter on the roll, which will better assist people with a non-English-speaking background or those with a hearing disability. In summary, these reforms will improve the operational efficiency of elections, remove overly prescriptive language in the act, improve services to particular disadvantaged or geographically remote voter groups and strengthen electoral integrity and administration.

I should say, having listened to the contributions to this debate, that as far as this bill is concerned it appears that most of the contributions have focused on the measures in this bill that clarify the interaction between federal, state and territory funding and disclosure regimes. The principle that the government is seeking to pursue is a very simple one, and that is that state laws should govern state elections and federal laws should govern federal elections; state laws should not govern federal elections. And I've got to say that I'm somewhat surprised by the strength of commentary from the Greens and even from my good friends and valued colleagues in Centre Alliance, because you're making all sorts of allegations, using offensive big words, in relation to a piece of legislation—

Hon. Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Here we go, and we've also got Senator Waters making money signs on the screen. This principle is actually something that has previously been legislated through this chamber—except it was much broader than what is in front of us now. What is here is a very narrow set of measures to ensure that there is clear separation between federal and state laws when it comes to the management of federal elections and state elections. And do you know what? The broader arrangement, the arrangement that went further than what is in this bill in front of us—do you know who voted for it? The Greens voted for it. Senator McKim voted for it. I'm not sure whether Senator Waters was in the Senate at the time. It might have been at a time when she was inconvenienced with constitutional matters. But I certainly know that Senator McKim voted for it. I also know that Senator Siewert voted for it. I know that Senator Patrick voted for it. I know that Senator Griff voted for it. So, now there is this confected outrage that somehow we're doing something terribly secretive. I mean, this is something that's been around for some time. It's something that all of you have voted for in the past, applauding the government for pursuing sensible reform. And now, because it's convenient in terms of the political narrative you want to run, you are somehow suggesting that there is something nefarious here.

Well, this is very plain and straightforward. This is a housekeeping bill. This is actually a housekeeping piece of legislation that helps to facilitate the proper functioning of our parliamentary democracy.

Senator Patrick interjecting

Senator Patrick, you voted for a much more significant measure, consistent with this principle of separating federal and state laws when it comes to electoral matters. It is entirely appropriate. The principle that federal law should govern federal elections and state laws should govern state elections, and state laws should not seek to interfere with the conduct of federal elections, is entirely straightforward, entirely proper. That is why I thank the opposition for their appropriate and sensible support for what is an absolutely appropriate and sensible housekeeping reform. Thank you.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Farrell be agreed to.

11:36 am

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the bill be read a second time.